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MI court ruling could clear way for “hostile educational environment” lawsuits

Steve Carmody

The Michigan Court of Appeals has cleared the way to allow civil rights lawsuits against schools for failing to protect students from sexual harassment by other students.

The case originated in Alpena County, where a parent filed a lawsuit against Alpena Public Schools for failing to protect her daughter from harassment by another student, starting in the fourth grade. The allegations included inappropriate physical contact.

The complaint said the school failed to enforce a no-contact request and failed to have the developmentally disabled boy placed under constant supervision.

The case was dismissed by the appeals court on other grounds outlined here:

While plaintiff’s response to the motion for summary disposition included a number of exhibits, plaintiff failed to pinpoint anything within the exhibits to support her assertions. Moreover, plaintiff failed to explain why defendants’ other actions—John’s* suspensions from school and his removal from the fourth-grade class—were not appropriate remedial actions.

(*John is a pseudonym used in the case to protect the privacy of a minor.)

But the court also unanimously held that schools — just like businesses — can be sued under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) for failing to take steps when made aware of student misconduct:

In sum, the ELCRA provides a remedy for plaintiffs who assert hostile educational environment claims on the basis of student-on-student harassment. A school avoids vicarious liability for these claims if it investigates and takes prompt and appropriate remedial action upon learning of the student’s behavior.

The court said it might have allowed the case to go forward if the girl’s family had shown the school failed to take “prompt and appropriate remedial action.”

The decision can be appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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